1. I’ve been rather amazed at the number of people actively spinning information in an anti-Jones direction the past couple of weeks. This is the world we live in. Social media provides everyone a voice and the voices of those who never wanted Jones hired in the first place have begun to dominate the conversation. Example: Jones is a real dunce of a coach because his team snapped the ball too early in the play clock while trying to run out the clock versus Oklahoma. I agree that they should have taken that thing right down to :01 before running their fourth-quarter plays. But Jones doesn’t coach in a vacuum. And if you looked outside the Tennessee bubble last week you might’ve seen Urban Meyer take some flak for his team doing the exact same thing as the Buckeyes tried to run out the clock versus Northern Illinois. He’s won a few national titles so no one’s going to make a big deal out of OSU’s clock management. But it was the exact same mistake Tennessee made versus Oklahoma. Just as we pointed out last week that Oregon’s coach caught some heat for not taking “sure points” on a 4th-and-goal from the Michigan State one-yard-line two weeks ago, if you’re going to bash Jones, at least compare his work fairly to that of other coaches. Perspective is a good thing.
2. Speaking of Oklahoma, I’ve heard that that loss took a massive bite out of the fanbase and cost Jones mucho support. Believing this, I expected to see a sparse crowd at Neyland Stadium for last week’s scrimmage versus Western Carolina. Instead, the stadium was nearly packed. And that wasn’t just the announced crowd. There were a lot of rumps in seats for a “Who cares?” kind of game. For that reason, I’m not so sure Jones really lost that many folks post-OU. The attendance suggests there are a lot of people out there — who aren’t calling into radio shows — who still have faith in Jones and/or had some realistic expectations entering the season. But…
3. Lose Saturday at Florida and THEN we’ll see how many folks are on and off the Butch Bus the following week against Arkansas. Florida has the potential to hurt Jones a lot more than Oklahoma did. Methinks the “outrage” over UT’s loss two weeks ago has been overblown a bit. The joy or anger after this week’s game will be overblown as well, but it might impact ticket sales more than the OU loss did.
4. Much was made this week of Bowling Green State coach Dino Babers suggesting that Memphis, not Tennessee, might be the best football team in the Volunteer State. But sometimes you have to think about who a coach is speaking to and why he’s saying what he’s saying. Babers lost by 29 points to Tennessee. His team lost by three in a shootout to Memphis. If he truly thinks Memphis is better than Tennessee based on his own team’s experiences then he’s sorta/kinda stupid. And I don’t think he is. BGSU was expected to lose to Tennessee. Memphis was supposed to be a win for his program and the game was played at home, not on the road. So why would he talk up Memphis and who was he talking to? Clearly he was trying to convince his fanbase that losing to the Tigers wasn’t as terrible as some of them may have thought. Coaches spin things to their fans all the time. You know that. Will you believe it when Jones tries to tell you later this year that North Texas will be a stern test for his Vols? No, you’ll know that’s spin. So don’t take Babers’ remark as something it’s not, either. He was trying to spin a loss and talk his own fans off the ledge.
5. You’ve heard Jones talk a lot about his team’s youth and inexperience this season. It’s real. Whether you want it to be or not, it is. Whether writers and talkshow hosts want to believe it, it’s real. But it does NOT apply at The Swamp on Saturday. The Gators are just as inexperienced as the Volunteers. They’ve got freshmen and sophomores all over their roster, too. Both teams have 20+ contributors who are in their first or second year of college ball. Two weeks ago we showed you that Tennessee was indeed much younger than Oklahoma. That won’t be the case against Florida.
6. Keep a close eye on the kicking game Saturday. In what figures to be a “field-position game,” as Jones called it earlier this week, both teams need to be able to rely on their punters and coverage teams. In this area, a slight advantage goes to Tennessee. Trevor Daniel, the transfer punter from Maryland, has been one of the Vols’ most consistent weapons on the season. UT ranks second in the SEC in punting average at 47.0 yards per kick. Florida ranks eighth in the league (41.4). However, the Gators allow fewer yards per return (6.0) than Tennessee (10.5). That’s an area to watch. Especially if/when Alvin Kamara lines up to return punts for the Vols. He’s an electric player as he showed last week. In a tight game, he could be the difference between winning and losing from a special teams role.
7. When it comes to the teams’ field goal kickers, that’s where things get dicey. Aaron Medley had a very strong freshman campaign but he’s struggled through the first quarter of his sophomore year, missing three of his seven field goal attempts. He has also kicked the ball out of bounds three times after Volunteer scores. That is such a massive field position swing that Vol coaches at this point have to be considering giving up on directional kickoffs. But things aren’t much better for Florida. Austin Hardin has missed three of his six attempts in 2015. He’s also missed an extra point. If the punting game is where Saturday’s game might be won, the kicking game is where one team might lose it.
8. If Tennessee is going to beat Florida, the Vols will need to do it on offense. An inability to put points on the board last year came back to bite Jones’ team in the fourth quarter of a 10-9 defeat. The Vols defense should be able to stand up to a Florida offense that’s been mediocre to date. The Gators aren’t as bad as they were under Will Muschamp — there has been improvement — but it’s not a night and day difference. No, Mike DeBord’s offense is the group under the most pressure. Florida still has a strong, talented defense. They will most likely load the box and dare Tennessee to throw over the top and into the teeth of a scary secondary, not unlike Oklahoma’s second-half plan. UT has had very little success on that front this season. In Gainesville, Zach Azzanni’s wideouts will need to prove that they can beat man/press coverage and create separation. They haven’t yet (aside from freshman Preston Williams last week… and he needs more playing time Saturday). Dan Mahoney’s offensive linemen will need to prove that it can give Dobbs time to drop back and throw the ball. They haven’t yet. And DeBord and Jones will need to show a willingness to throw the ball short across the middle. They haven’t yet, though Jones has done so in the past. The problem in that area is receiver Pig Howard. As we pointed out earlier this week, he’s been the Vols’ middle man in past seasons. But he’s questionable for the Florida game. Will Tennessee be able to get guys open (by scheme or talent), protect its passer, and connect downfield against one of the SEC’s best secondaries? Huge questions. Huge.
9. One reason Tennessee might not be so quick to throw short across the middle through this season? Dobbs’ accuracy issues. Howard caught plenty of slants and shallow crossing routes with Justin Worley at quarterback. Worley was more accurate — especially in practice — than Dobbs. And if the coaches see Dobbs being inaccurate and inconsistent tossing across the middle in practice, it makes sense that they might not be so willing to call for those types of throws in games. If you’re inaccurate outside the numbers, there’s a good chance the ball simply falls incomplete. If you’re inaccurate over the middle, there’s an increased chance of tipped balls and interceptions. Dobbs’ accuracy numbers have been helped by the number of short hitches and screens his thrown. Talk to anyone that played with Worley and Dobbs and they’ll tell you the former threw a better ball in practice than the latter. So watch Saturday to see how many times you can spot a Vol receiver run a slant or a shallow cross (sometimes tough to see on TV). If you’re not seeing them — and we have seen them in the past — the reason could be Dobbs’ inconsistency throwing the football.
10. Florida’s secondary won’t be at full strength thanks to the suspension of sometimes starting corner Jalen Tabor this past Wednesday. You might remember him as the man who strip-sacked Justin Worley in last year’s game, a play that effectively turned momentum in the Gators’ favor for good. Also out this week will be the quarterback who came into the fourth quarter and led UF’s only two scoring drives in last year’s game, Treon Harris. Many see these suspensions as a large aid to the Volunteers. No doubt, they help. But Will Grier is a running quarterback, like Harris, and he went the whole way against Kentucky last week. Where Harris’ absence helps the Vols is if Grief plays terribly and the Gators have nowhere to turn but Vanderbilt transfer Josh Grady. Tabor’s absence also helps Tennessee, but not so much as a Vernon Hargreaves suspension would have. Now THAT would have been a help. From my perspective, Tennessee’s loss of Curt Maggitt to injury — this will be the Vols’ first real test without their team leader — is a bigger loss for UT than either of the suspended players are for UF. You might have noticed last week that Tennessee failed to generate much pass rush against FCS-level Western Carolina without Maggitt on the field. That was not a good sign, as VFLs Will Overstreet and Daniel Hood pointed out on my show last Sunday. There’s no denying the Gators’ suspensions help the Vols’ case, but I don’t see them being the difference in the contest. Maggitt’s absence might be.
11. After the suspensions were announced midweek, I heard one Knoxville talkshow caller state that with the missing Gators and the Volunteers’ talent advantage, Tennessee should roll into Gainesville and win by “two or three touchdowns.” Odds are that man will not be happy come Saturday evening. Tennessee’s record in Gainesville since 1991 is 2-10. They’ve lost games in The Swamp by 17, 25 and 39 points. The average score over that span is Florida 33, Tennessee 22. So if the Vols somehow eek out a 3-2 victory in Gainesville, there should be ZERO complaints about style points. Just winning the game should be plenty good enough.
12. Speaking of suspensions, how ’bout the return of Tennessee defensive lineman Danny O’Brien this week? Convenient timing. He’ll be needed Saturday.
13. Interestingly, Jones upset some folks this week when he downplayed the importance of Saturday’s game. Never did he say it wasn’t important, as some have suggested. I thought it was clear he simply didn’t want to put too much pressure on his team. Some — who are likely anti-Jones to begin with — wanted their coach to say, “Yes, this game is massive.” I have a problem with that because for years many people bashed John Majors and Phillip Fulmer for putting TOO MUCH emphasis on their rivalry games (Alabama for Majors and Florida for Fulmer). Folks can’t have it both ways. “Don’t make the players tight… but do say it’s a massive game with huge implications.” That’s “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” talk. This past Sunday, I asked Jacob Gilliam if he felt Jones and his staff handled the Florida game differently from other games last season:
So is that a good thing or a bad thing? Depends on the team.
14. Finally, I think Tennessee has a slightly better team than Florida this year. I believe Dobbs will need to hit one or two deep balls, but I don’t know that that will happen (due to Dobbs’ inconsistency, receivers not getting open and/or the line not giving Dobbs time to throw). I think Dobbs will need to keep the ball more often on the zone-read this week. I also think that Jalen Hurd and Kamara will need to do a lot of work on their own. I simply don’t trust the new offensive line yet. Defensively, I like the Vols’ overall talent, but the loss of Maggitt is flat-out scary. If UT can’t find another edge-rusher to replace Maggitt, Derek Barnett becomes a whole lot easier to shut down off the other side. So while I think the Volunteers have the right mix of talent to finally knock off Florida, I don’t fully trust that talent yet. Ditto the coaches in a big game atmosphere. Most importantly, I can also read a media guide and figure out that Florida — winners of 19 out of 25 versus Tennessee — and The Swamp — as noted above — are the Vols’ Kryptonite. Good or bad, UT usually finds a way to lose when they see orange and blue lined up across from them. For that reason, I’ve got to take Florida 20-17. There’s nothing daring about a believe-it-when-I-see-it prediction, but those making daring pro-Vols picks over the past decade are now 0-10.
Join us Sunday at 11am on WATE-TV 6 in East Tennessee for The Sports Source. If Tennessee loses, you can expect some angry VFLs on our set. If the Vols win, well, it might just be the most celebratory show we’ve done over our 13-year, 600+ episode run. See you then and thanks in advance!
— John Pennington